- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 26, 2003

“Violence didn’t work,” former antiwar militant Mark Rudd declares with evident exasperation halfway through “The Weather Underground,” a sympathetic new documentary about the counterculture’s most violent revolutionaries. It’s playing at Visions Cinema, where it has been extended through Sept. 4.

Would that Mr. Rudd’s epiphany had come halfway through the actual tenure of the mad bombers, whose reign of terror — actually more a scattered shower of senselessly destructive acts — lasted from roughly 1969 to 1981. Unfortunately, it was not until much later, we learn in this film, that feelings of “guilt” and “shame” overcame Mr. Rudd, who began his radical career as president of Students for a Democratic Society, the largely peaceful antiwar group that spawned the Weather Underground (WU).

Now a contemplative mathematics teacher in Albuquerque, N.M., Mr. Rudd is hardly alone in his latter-day ambivalence about the Weathermen, the bourgeois white students who took their name from Bob Dylan’s 1965 disaffected-youth anthem “Subterranean Homesick Blues” (“You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows”) and later changed it to the Weather Underground, both to strip it of gender specificity and to describe more aptly their fugitive status.

Other aging WU members, interviewed in their comfortable contemporary habitats at universities and social justice centers, also express misgivings about their youthful exuberance. Brian Flanagan, now a Greenwich Village bar owner, aptly likens the mind-set of the WU — which detonated bombs at the Pentagon, the Capitol, banks and police buildings in the early 1970s — to that of the jihad-minded terrorists of September 11.

“Driven crazy” by the indiscriminate killing during the Vietnam War, Mr. Flanagan says now, the WU radicals believed they had “right on their side” and wound up doing “dreadful things.”

Yet for every remorseful member of the group seen in this stylishly edited and often haunting film, there are two or three — including the WU’s most glamorous apostle, the pretty and well-spoken lawyer Bernadine Dohrn — who betray no hint of regret for their criminal escapades during the flower-power era. Miss Dohrn, who surrendered to police in 1980, vowing to continue “the struggle” while wearing a turtleneck and tweed ensemble, today surveys with fond smiles the waterfront shack where she successfully hid from lawmen with Bill Ayers, her WU comrade and husband.

Similarly, Mr. Ayers, who last year published his autobiography, “Fugitive Days,” strolls wistfully, baseball bat in hand, down the Chicago Gold Coast site where, during the October 1969 “Days of Rage” campaign, he and his WU brethren indiscriminately smashed car and storefront windows and provoked police into a bloody brawl. With great earnestness, Mr. Ayers explains how the WU aimed not merely to stop the Vietnam War, but to overthrow America’s capitalist society and replace it with “something much more humane.” It’s a vision neither Mr. Ayers nor any of the other WU members, either in contemporary interviews or old film clips, ever thoughtfully defines.

In releasing “The Weather Underground” this summer, directors Sam Green and Bill Siegel benefit from uncanny timing. This past Thursday, in a highly controversial move, a New York state penal board granted parole to Kathy Boudin, a former WU member imprisoned in 1981 on felony murder and robbery charges after she took part in an armed Brinks truck heist that claimed the lives of a Nanuet security guard and two Nyack police officers. (Her husband, David Gilbert, who drove the getaway vehicle, speaks in “The Weather Underground” from Attica, where he is serving a 75 year prison term.)

Daughter of Leonard Boudin, the radical lawyer who represented Paul Robeson, Daniel Ellsberg and other leftist causes celebre, Kathy Boudin said she believed the $1.6 million take would bankroll something called the Black Liberation Army.

“I saw myself as the person who felt extremely guilty about being white,” Miss Boudin told her parole examiners this spring, echoing a sentiment heard repeatedly throughout Mr. Green’s and Mr. Siegel’s film. Naomi Jaffe, a WU veteran now performing social work in Albany, says living her “white life” and going to her parents’ and friends’ “white parties” became morally repugnant to her because doing nothing amid the violence perpetrated by the ostensibly racist, genocidal America of the 1960s “was itself a form of violence.”

Other members openly worshipped the Black Panthers, who in 1966 began urging Oakland’s blacks to mount armed resistance to white police officers. In its “declaration of war,” a tape recording of Miss Dohrn’s voice mailed to the Chicago bureau of the New York Times in May 1970, the WU warned of an impending attack on a “symbol or institution of Amerikan injustice,” a gesture meant to “celebrate the example of [Panther leaders] Eldridge Cleaver and H. Rap Brown and all black revolutionaries who first inspired us.” Ironically, the directors include a contemporaneous clip of a Panther spokesman dismissing the WU as naive white fools.

Such internal schisms plagued the 1960s new left, especially the WU, with its eschewal of nonviolent protest; in “The Weather Underground” these conflicts resurface. Todd Gitlin, the most accomplished academic historian to emerge from the antiwar movement, dismisses the WU’s “kindergarten” political program and condemns the group for embracing the ideology and tactics of Hitler, Stalin and Mao.

Mr. Gitlin’s comment marks one of the film’s few acknowledgements that the communist ideal itself toward which the WU strove, along with many of its nonviolent new left cohorts, ultimately proved morally bankrupt and murderous. Nowhere does the film entertain, even in passing, the idea that the American effort in Vietnam derived from noble intentions or sound geopolitical considerations; of the Khmer Rouge’s genocide in Cambodia, not a word is spoken. Instead, we are treated to slow-motion replays of the famous footage of South Vietnamese general Nguyen Ngoc Loan executing a Viet Cong prisoner — and notorious murderer — on the streets of Saigon in 1968 and of Kim Phuc, the pitiable naked Vietnamese girl captured by photographers fleeing a napalm strike that was actually conducted by Vietnamese, not American, planes.

And while various WU veterans express undiminished shock that police should have met the movement’s threat with purposeful, counterrevolutionary force, little time is given to the recollections of those lawmen who risked their lives repelling the WU and none to the families of individuals whose lives the group claimed.

A sole FBI agent, Don Strickland, describes briefly the bureau’s infiltration program, which otherwise is decried as unconstitutional. Although Richard Nixon is heard from in two old sound bites, contemporary interviews with surviving members of the Nixon administration, who might have shared their perspective on the confrontation, were not, it seems, even attempted.

If the sympathies of “The Weather Underground” skew toward its largely unapologetic revolutionary subjects, the film nonetheless serves as an excellent introduction to the passions and radicalized politics of what is becoming, unthinkably, a distant era.

As momentous as the political tumult of that era seemed at the time, the attacks of September 11, and the expanded police powers that followed, make both the security threat posed by even the most violent 1960s radicals and also the contemporaneous encroachments on civil liberties that animated them seem almost quaint.

Naomi Jaffe muses at the film’s end that although her comrades’ actions failed to overthrow American capitalism or shorten the Vietnam War, they surely made it easier for future protesters to rally against similar evils. Yet widespread American support for the war in Iraq, a projection of U.S. military power even more clearly discretionary than the one in Vietnam, suggests that even by Miss Jaffe’s own, lowered standards, the Weather Underground was a failure.

James Rosen is a Fox News White House correspondent whose book, “The Strong Man: John Mitchell, Nixon and Watergate,” will be published next year by Doubleday.

*** 1/2

WHAT: “The Weather Underground”

RATING: Not rated

CREDITS: Directed by Sam Green and Bill Siegel

RUNNING TIME: 92 minutes

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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